Ezekiel Elliott to the Dallas Cowboys was an NFL draft dream scenario, in terms of a prospect landing in the right spot to dominate from the very first day. Without Tony Romo for most of the season, the Dallas offensive line got Darren McFadden to over 1,000 rushing yards despite a negative PFF grade for McFadden for his part in the production.
This was the best offensive line in football, and if anything should be better this season if La’el Collins takes a step forward in his development and approaches his potential more regularly than the occasional crushing, highlight reel block.
A healthy Ezekiel Elliott running behind this line will win Rookie of the Year — it’s almost inevitable. What makes me say that?
Let’s first look at what Elliott can do all by himself. His game is all about yards after contact. He may not have the elite high-end speed to take it to the house every time there is a gap big enough, but he will drag people for three extra yards on most plays, which on a down-to-down basis is a far more useful skill. Last season in college, Elliott averaged 3.6 yards per carry after contact. That was second only to Jordan Howard in the draft class and Elliott carried the ball 95 times more than Howard did. Obviously the NFL is a different beast, but only two NFL backs with 150+ carries last season topped three yards per carry after contact. Even pro-bowl performers were around a full yard lower than Elliott’s final year at Ohio State.
Elliott was one of just two players in the class to notch more than 1,000 rushing yards after contact, with Derrick Henry being the other. Elliott got over 1,000 yards after contact despite carrying the ball 105 times fewer than Henry, whose college workload was utterly ludicrous.
If you get him a crease, he will fall forward through linemen. If you get him to the second level, he will drag defenders for extra yardage every time. This play against Rutgers typifies the kind of juggernaut he can be with the ball in his hands:
It may not be the most health-friendly way of running, but Elliott has proven to be durable so far in his football career, and in the short term it promises to maximize his production.
The other boost to Elliott’s early NFL output is that he can play every down. Most college running backs are true “scatbacks” – that is, backs with no responsibility in pass protection. Elliott is different, and he may be the most NFL-ready back from a blitz protection and pass-blocking standpoint to come along in over a decade. In the college landscape most systems prefer sending the backs out into patterns as check-down options if pressure comes rather than keeping them in to pick up one extra man. It makes sense in that college linemen are often so bad that you can’t rely on simply having a man assigned to a pass rusher to stop him actually getting pressure, so the back picking up the free man might make no difference — better to have him out as a receiving option and give the QB somewhere else to go if needed.
Ohio State used Elliott in a different way entirely. Over the last two seasons he was kept in to pass protect on 244 snaps. This past season he allowed just one solitary pressure on 108 snaps of pass blocking, and that sack came after getting his man to the ground with an awkward cut block, and could easily have been charged to the QB instead.
Elliott can pass block like no back in this draft, and ran an array of sophisticated and complex assignments – assignments worthy of an NFL playbook. Young backs, no matter how talented with the ball in their hands, often find themselves off the field on third downs early in their careers because coaches don’t trust them to protect the QB. Hell, even Adrian Peterson spends many crucial drives for the Vikings on the sideline because he is not a good blocker or receiver.
Elliott is good at both. We have covered his blocking prowess, but over the past two seasons he caught 89.7 percent of the passes thrown his way. He may not have been a featured receiver, with the progression rarely getting that far, but he can catch the ball and do damage.
Still doubt his hands? Check out this vine of him snagging a pass one-handed, while on the phone, as a coach swats at the ball…
All this is by way of saying Dallas doesn’t need a third-down back to steal playing time away from Elliott the way other rookie backs do. For example, Gurley was only used on 9.1 percent of 3rd-and-8+ situations as a rookie. Elliott will play a lot for the Cowboys, and behind that line, that should lead to fireworks.
Best run-blocking OL in football
The Cowboys offensive line has ranked No.1 at PFF in run blocking in each of the past two seasons. Before arriving in Dallas, Darren McFadden had rushed for 1,620 yards at 3.3 yards per carry over three seasons. His per carry average was worse than every other back with at least 1,000 yards over that span except for Trent Richardson — that is not a happy position to be in.
But in Dallas, he averaged 4.6 yards per carry and gained over 1,000 yards for only the second time in his career. If you look at just the games he started, or saw a starting load in (he didn’t start Week 7 against the Giants but saw 29 carries — his first major workload of the season) he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and produced at a level that would extrapolate out to 1,396 yards over a full season.
Essentially that line turned an afterthought free agency pick up into a pro-bowl level of production.
These are the grades we gave to the Dallas O-line last season. Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick were blue-chip, elite level players while Zack Martin was not far behind. Doug Free had a down year, but had six-straight seasons of strong run blocking before last year, so he could be a candidate to bounce back in 2016. The only issue on the line was rookie La’el Collins, and that was less because of ability and more due to rookie inconsistency. There were too many mental mistakes in his game – zoning the wrong way to the rest of the line, or screwing up the snap count and being late out of his stance – but when he got it right, it was spectacular:
Assuming he takes a step forward in his second season and works out the mental kinks that tarnished his rookie season, we could see something special from not only him, but from this line as a whole.
High-level running backs can get production without much help, and high level offensive lines can get production out of very mediocre players. When you add the two of those together you get an absolutely dominant and near-unstoppable ground game, and that's what it looks like the Cowboys are gearing up for in 2016.
A healthy Ezekiel Elliott has the skills to be productive in any system, but put him behind that Cowboys line with the tools to play on all three downs, and he'll easily walk away with Rookie of the Year.